Tag Archives: Nicole Krauss

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2018

Cover imageI’ve read all but one of August’s paperbacks, or at least the ones that have caught my eye, which means a nice cheap month for me. I’ll begin with Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come which explores modern Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one rather infuriating woman. Hard to encapsulate this episodic novel in a neat synopsis but de Kretser executes it with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour underpinned with compassion.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is also notable for its compassion, examining the plight of refugees through the lens of a recently retired, widowed academic. Richard finds himself faced with a blank future until his interest is piqued by a hunger strike staged by a group of African refugees which leads to his involvement with the occupation of Oranienplatz. Erpenbeck humanises the occupiers through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s a much more conventional narrative than either The End of Days or Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck, but there’s the same consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it.

The past is very much present in Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark in which two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays. Krauss alternates Jules Epstein’s relatively straightforward story with Nicole’s discursive, highly literary narrative, building an expectation that they will meet at some point which – a little frustratingly – is unfulfilled. Rich in ideas and beautifully expressed, Forest Dark is far from an easy read but it’s Cover imagea rewarding one.

Studded with a multitude of literary allusions – even the cops read Modiano – C. K. Stead’s The Necessary Angel is about a professor at the Sorbonne who lives in a state of comfortably amicable estrangement from his wife. Max conceives an unexpected passion for a junior colleague, then a young British postgraduate appears in his study, charming him with both her flattery and eccentricity. While his wife is on holiday, a painting thought to be a Cézanne disappears from her apartment and Max finds himself in a fix. Stead’s novel manages to be both cerebral and thoroughly entertaining.

Continuing the literary allusion theme, Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway which follows a diverse set of characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Melrose shifts smoothly from one character to another offering her readers a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela. It’s an ambitious, expertly executed novel which made me wonder why I hadn’t read Melrose’s first book, Midwinter.

Set in early twentieth-century Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is the story of Annie, rescued from poverty by the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor when her husband commits suicide leaving her pregnant and bereft. It bears all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a McDermott novel: understated yet lyrical writing; empathy in spades; astutely drawn characters, Cover imageall gathered together to form a quietly glorious whole infused with gentle humour.

My last August paperback is Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight which I’ve yet to read. Comprising ‘elegant, unsparing and intimate stories’, Sharma’s collection combines ‘the minimalism of Chekhov and Carver with a flair for dark comedy’ say the publishers setting the bar rather high although having read the Folio Prize-winning Family Life I’d say they may well be right.

If you’d like to know more, a click on any of the first six titles above will take you to a full review here or to a more detailed synopsis for A Life of Adventure and Delight, and if you’d like to catch up with August’s new books they’re here, and here.

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Lost in the desert with Kafka

You probably know Nicole Krauss’ name already. The History of Love, published back in 2004, was a bestseller here in the UK as well as in her native US, thanks in part to its inclusion in the Richard & Judy book club selection. Lots of literary types tended to sneer at R&J but their choices were frequently far from unchallenging. They also did more than their bit to help keep British bookselling afloat. I remember being captivated by The History of Love, although not so much by Great House, which followed it six years later. Forest Dark falls somewhere in between for me. In it two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays.

Rich and well-connected, Jules Epstein is a New York Jew born to impoverished parents in Tel Aviv. Throughout his childhood, Edith and Solomon sparred constantly but since their deaths, Epstein has become untethered, divorcing his wife of three decades and giving away bits and piece of his fortune. He takes himself off to Tel Aviv, ostensibly to find a way of commemorating his parents but perhaps there’s more to it than that. On the eve of his departure he meets a rabbi, shabby but confident, who hails him as a descendent of King David, an acquaintance that’s renewed the following day on the plane. Meanwhile, Nicole – we never learn her last name – is suffering insomnia, unhappy in her marriage and unable to write. She experiences an odd feeling of momentary dislocation and decides that she needs to visit the Tel Aviv Hilton with which she’s become obsessed. Her cousin wants her to meet an acquaintance who, it turns out, has his own obsession and a determination that Nicole will help him with it. These two very different characters find themselves led by unreliable guides, each with their own agenda: one will have her world clicked sharply into focus; the other – as we know from the start – will disappear.

Krauss alternates Epstein and Nicole’s narratives, the second of which is in the first person. Epstein’s story is comparatively straightforward while Nicole’s is more discursive, full of introspective musings and erudite explorations of literature and Judaism. That may sound a little off-putting but it’s a gripping piece of storytelling, elegantly written and leavened with a pleasingly dry humour. Epstein is a big character – ‘There was too much of him; he constantly overspilled himself’ – who shrinks as his world becomes less sure. All too easy to assume Nicole stands for Krauss, of course, although it seems a little facile in a book which is anything but that. There’s a great deal about literature in the novel – Friedman’s outlandish theories about Kafka’s life in the desert, brought to an end in 1956, prompt a disquisition on his work and the contents of the suitcase which his literary executor rescued and took to Israel. Religion clearly cannot be ignored in such a setting: Epstein’s down to earth dismissal of ‘the great woolly hat of belief’ which obscures the rational doesn’t prevent him becoming involved with the charismatic rabbi Klausner. Just one gripe: Krauss’ dual narrative structure builds an expectation that the Nicole and Epstein will meet at some point which is unfulfilled. That said, Forest Dark is absorbing, rich in ideas and beautifully expressed – far from an easy read but certainly rewarding one.

My 2017 Man Booker wish list

Despite swearing off Man Booker predictions a few years back I can’t seem to keep away although I must emphasize that my track record is pretty dismal so don’t go laying any bets on my suggestions. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and 30th September 2017 and have been written in English. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September but I’m sticking to novels I’ve already read. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Thursday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order:

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The Fatal Tree                                             Birdcage Walk                             Reservoir 13

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The End We Start From                      The Answers                      Conversations with Friends

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A Line Made by Walking               Before Everything                            The Nix

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The Hearts of Men                     Johannesburg                              Forest Dark

Usually several titles jostle for position as my top choice but this year there’s no contest – Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. No reflection on the merits of the other books: McGregor’s writing is sublime and this is quite possibly his best work yet. I’ll be searching for a hat to eat if it doesn’t make it on to the longlist at the very least. If you’d like to read my review, a click on a title will take you to it. A reviews of Forest Dark to follow soon, as will a what I got up to on my holidays post later in the week for those who might be interested.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Books to Look Out for in August 2017

Top of my August list has to be Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark. I remember taking The History of Love on holiday one year and losing myself in it; one of those books that stayed with me for some time. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with Great House but hopes are high for this one which is about two people: a retired lawyer who takes off from New York for the Tel Aviv Hilton to the mystification of his family and a novelist who has left her husband and children in Brooklyn, heading to the same hotel – familiar from childhood holidays – in the hope of clearing her writer’s block. ‘Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation – of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite’ say the publishers rather grandly.

Jonathan Dee’s The Locals also features a character fleeing New York, this time for a small town in New England just after 9/11. Hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi employs Mark Firth, recently swindled by his financial advisor, to make his new home secure. These two men are from very different worlds: one rural middle class, the other urban and wealthy. Hadi’s election to mayor has a transforming effect on Firth’s home town, one that will have implications for Firth and his extended family. ‘The Locals is that rare work of fiction capable of capturing a fraught American moment in real time. It is also a novel that is timeless in its depiction of American small town life’ say the publishers which sounds very appealing to me.

One more New York link then we’re off to Boston followed by two jaunts outside of the USA. It seems that the success of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko has prompted her publishers to re-issue Free Food for Millionaires which I remember reading and enjoying when it was first published here in the UK ten years ago. It’s about Casey Han, the daughter of working-class Korean immigrants, whose years at Princeton have left her with a decent education and a set ofCover image expensive habits but no job. She and her parents both live in New York but they inhabit very different worlds. ‘As Casey navigates an uneven course of small triumphs and spectacular failures, a clash of values, ideals and ambitions plays out against the colourful backdrop of New York society, its many layers, shades and divides…’ say the publishers. I remember Casey as a particularly endearing character.

Over to Boston for J. Courteney Sullivan’s Saints for All Seasons which follows sisters Nora and Theresa from their small Irish village to Boston. When Theresa becomes pregnant, sensible Nora comes up with a plan, the repercussions of which will echo down the generations for fifty years by which time Nora is the matriarch of a large family and Theresa is a nun. ‘A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together’ say the publishers which may sound a little over the top but I do love a family secret theme and I remember being completely engrossed by Sullivan’s previous novel, Maine.

It sounds as if dark secrets may be at the heart of Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I am Happy, a novel he’s translated himself from his native Danish. Ellinor is addressing Anna, killed forty years ago in the same skiing accident that felled Henning who was both Ellinor’s first husband and Anna’s lover. Anna’s husband, who became Ellinor’s partner, has died and Ellinor is taking stock, looking back over her life and confiding in her long dead best friend ‘because there are some secrets – both our own and of others – that we can only share with the dead. Secrets that nonetheless shape who we are and who we love’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

Cover imageI couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm for reading Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, for some reason. I’m not sure why. Lots of other readers seemed very keen. Johannesburg with its appealing structure sounds much more up my street. The events of the novel take place during the day Nelson Mandela’s death was announced in what sounds like a panoramic story of a scattering of the eponymous city’s inhabitants including a ‘troubled novelist called Virginia’, a polite nod of acknowledgement to Ms Woolf for borrowing her structure. ‘Melrose’s second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love’  say the publishers.

That’s it for August. Let’s hope the sun will be out and those of us who hail from often overcast Northern Europe can get out and read in it. If you’d like to know more about any of the books, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. I’m off on my hols for ten days on Friday morning, earlier that I can bear to think about, planning to post my Man Booker wishlist on my return.